Weil’s disease, a rare but serious risk to canoeists

Weil's disease: Image shows brown rat on river bank, with river behind.

Weil’s disease is a bacterial infection carried in rat’s urine. Here, a brown rat explores the bank of the River Kennet, a tributary of the River Thames.

Weil’s disease (Leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagiae) is a bacterial infection carried in rat’s urine which contaminates water and wet river banks. The bacteria does not survive for long in dry conditions. It can occur in any water, although the risk of infection is greater in stagnant or slow moving water. Weil’s disease is rare, but it can be a serious illness requiring hospital treatment.

Weil’s disease is caught by absorbing the bacteria through the skin and mucous membranes of the mouth and eyes, or any cuts in the skin. If within 3–19 days after canoeing you feel ill with a temperature, influenza-like illness and/or joint and muscle pain and possibly jaundice, you should see your doctor immediately. Tell your doctor that you have been taking part in water sports and where you have been paddling.

Weil’s disease precautions

All paddlers should:

1. Use footwear to avoid cutting feet.

2. Cover all scratches or cuts on exposed parts of the body with waterproof plasters.

3. Avoid immersion in stagnant or slow moving water.

4. Wash or shower after immersion or paddling generally.

For more information see the NHS online guide to Leptospirosis.

Photograph taken by Brian Robert Marshall